Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Fate of Unlucky Girls

It’s always interesting to hear students’ stories, even if it is one variation of the same story over and over again, it amazes me each time. Tonight I was talking to two of my students in the office, and one of the students was telling me about her good friend.

Her friend was from Xinjiang province (the farthest west in China) but moved to Xian (the city near us) when she was 13. She came alone, and she knew no one. She came because her father had died. He had some sort of disease and came to Xian for medical treatment, but the treatment failed and he died.
“What about her mother?” I asked. “Did she not have a mother?”
“No,” my student said, “She had a mother. But her mother didn’t like her.”

The girl had been born at an unlucky time. Apparently each year there are certain times that are unlucky for birth. Some people think that babies born during these times will cause harm for their family, especially brothers or fathers. They are thought to have some sort of medical power. My students said that these beliefs are common in the countryside all over China, but not as much in the city.

If a family has a child during an unlucky time, they may give the child a different family name than their own. This is to counterbalance the unluckiness or to keep harm away from the rest of the family. This happened to someone in my student’s family, who still has a different family name than her parents and siblings.

So my student’s friend moved away when she was 13 because her family felt like she caused her father’s death. The first night in the city she slept on the street, but after that she found a school to attend.

We moved on to talking about traditional attitudes toward girls. One of the students said her grandfather did not like her and was unhappy when she was born. “I don’t know why,” she said, “but now that I am grown up he likes me.”
The other one said her grandmother does not like her. Her grandmother likes her brother and is always giving him gifts and treating him well, but she does not like my student. Her cousin also doesn’t like her. Her cousin had three girls, each time trying for a boy. The third time, he left his youngest daughter on the floor of the hospital, hiding outside until someone came and took her.
“But we are very lucky,” my students said.

Most of my students are girls. I hear a lot of these stories. But somehow it amazes me every time.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Old Woman Enjoying Shaanxi Opera

Shaanxi Opera is a special form of grating Chinese music that the old people here are quite fond of. Every weekend and most weekdays in the main city square, you can find groups of old people playing traditional Chinese instruments. There's generally a man or woman singing traditional opera (if you've ever heard Beijing Opera, aka Peking Opera, you get the idea). The other day, I even spotted several musicians practicing in the outdoor dining area at McDonalds (I wish I had my camera that day).

I just uploaded a bunch of photos of people playing and enjoying Shaanxi Opera in the city square, in addition to shots of the Sports Meeting, our trip to Xi'an a couple weeks ago and other stuff to flickr. Check them out here:http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevsunblush/

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A big-time apology

By Kevin

Friday afternoon, an unknown number popped up on the cell phone.

"This is the monitor from class 1," she began. "I want to apologize because several of us cheated on your examination yesterday, we want to ask you to forgive us."

"I am willing to forgive you, but I am still deciding what I will do." I said.

She passed the telephone to a classmate, who dove into a long run-on sentence that combined an apology with excuses about how the class is too difficult, but that they were wrong to do what they did. "Several of us cheated on your exam. Will you please forgive us? We have washed the desks in the class and would like to meet with you so we can talk about it together. Would you be willing to give us another examination?"

Unfortunately, our Chinese lesson was about to begin. "Unfortunately, I will be busy this afternoon, but we can meet another time. I am willing to forgive you, but I am still deciding what I will do."

I met with six representatives from the class a couple hours later. I wondered: did the man in the office who I asked about changing the classroom say something or did they come to this conclusion on their own? Maybe they heard from the class that took the exam right after they did. Maybe they just saw that I'd scratched out their answers on the desks.

When they came over, the students spent more than an hour apologizing and then giving me advice for how I can make their class better. Just what every teacher wants: a lecture from his students.

The class monitor explained that she called a meeting of her classmates that morning and every student except for one had signed a letter of apology admitting that they had cheated. The one student who didn't sign insisted that she did not cheat. Now, I don't think that this many actually cheated (not every desk had answers written upon it), but since China is a very collective culture, undoubtedly, some students decided to stand alongside their classmates, in hopes that I'd give everyone another chance.

Here is their apology:

"A Letter of Apology"

Our dear teacher Kevin:

We are your students in 07ET1. We are sorry for our performance in your examing class. we admitted that we had done wrong, and we bave already realized our stupid behaves. We were cheating not only our teacher but also ourselves. We have had twice exams for this lesson during the semester. What we want to say to you is that it's too difficult for us to learn this course well, in your class we fixed our mind to listen to you but still can catch a little information. The vocabulary in our lessons is too large. So it's difficult for us to understand and learn them by heart. We were anxious about the coming of the exam and even didn't take a rest at noon before the exam. In order to pass the exam, the majority of us cheated in it and the rest of us kept honest. So please forgive us this time and give us a chance to correct our fault by taking another exam. We promise we won't do the same stupid thing again, please pardon us!

We sincerely hope that you and your beautiful wife Ruth live a happy live in China and may your jobs fares well.

Thank you for reading our letter.

Department of foreign English,


(each student signed their names)

I expressed my disappointment with them and told them they they need to learn from this experience. I told them that when they cheat, they are robbing themselves, cheapening their education and lying to their future employers, among others. What if their doctor had cheated on his exams? Maybe he wouldn't know how to diagnose them properly. People would die.

I also thanked the students for apologizing to me early rather than waiting until I brought the matter up. I told them that I appreciated their courage to ask for forgiveness, even if I doubted that they would have done so if they hadn't been caught. I told them that I would forgive them because I have been forgiven for much. I told them that they will be taking another, more difficult exam. Probably an essay-based exam. Their maximum possible score on the exam will also be reduced.

I'm still deciding exactly how I will lecture the rest of the class on the seriousness of their offense in a way that may help them to realize their need for a grace bigger than that I can give.

This is not how I wanted to mark Ruth's birthday.

Thankfully, in the evening, the team gathered to celebrate Ruth's day. We made pizzas and cake, played Settlers (Ruth won), and watched Ruth's favorite movie: "Benny & Joon."

The plot thickens

Thursday night, May 7
by Kevin

I just had the realization that my Tuesday class was in the same classroom where mass cheating going on. My joy that several of them seemed to do better on this exam has morphed into suspicion. This has also made my reaction to the class I caught more complicated: some of the desks may have had answers written upon them before Tuesday's exam, so some of Thursday's culprits may not be guilty. Grr.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Once a cheater, always a cheater?

by Kevin

Today my frustrations with my culture classes boiled over into full-on anger. Anger mixed with sorrow about my student's souls.

Today I caught almost an entire class -- 34 of 44 -- cheating on an exam.

But before I get into that, let me back up a day. During the exam I gave yesterday, I spotted one girl who was mysteriously looking back and forth between her paper and her desk.

"What could she be looking at?" I wondered as I walked towards her. She slyly shifted her paper to the side, covering the area her eyes had been examining. I made a mental note of her name and where she was sitting, so I could get a closer look at her desk after almost everyone had left the room. After all, maybe something else was going on.

Sure enough, maps of Australia and New Zealand, which is one part of what they were being tested on, had been faitlfully drawn onto the desk. Now, most of the time these sort of things go unnoticed, because Chinese students are notorious for writing all over their desks. There isn't a single desk in the class that doesn't have writing scrawled all over it.

"What are you looking at?" asked the one student who was left in class, after handing me her exam. "She wrote the answers on her desk," I said, shaking my head.

She pulled out the blasphemous phrase every Chinese student seems to know to use when something shocking has happened:

"Oh my God," she exclaimed in mock horror. "How terrible. What will you do?"

"I am still deciding."

"I think when someone cheats, they must be punished, yes?"


I continued looking at other desks and soon discovered that others had used the same tactics. Unfortunately, I wasn't sure who had been sitting in those desks, since many change seats each week.

Fast forward one day. Now, my cheat-dar is on high alert as I give the an exam to another class. I spot a handful of eyes that are following the same track as the girl did yesterday, dancing back and forth between papers and their desks. Briefly, I consider nailing them now, but suddenly I had a thought: "I'll make note of where everyone is seated and then come check their desks after the exam. I begin writing out a seating chart, noting each student's name as I walk by."

After they leave, I began making the rounds.

By now I'm fuming. I pull out a blue permanent marker and begin drawing lines through their answers on the desks, to shame them.

By the time I finished, only a handful of desks were left without blue marks.

And there was another class about to come into the same room to take the same exam. I hurried up to the department office and found another a room we could move to for the exam. "Is there a department policy on cheating?" I asked Mr. Wang, explaining what had happened. "No, there isn't."

As I waited in the original classroom, counting down the minutes to when the next exam would begin, I watched the students cramming for their exam, curious if they would realize that the teacher was onto them. Several hurried students came into class, sat in their seat and noticed that answers had been scratched out. As they pointed it out to their neighbors, I gave them a knowing nod. But not everyone caught on. One girl, oblivious, frantically scribbled out a few answers onto her desk.

"I discovered that most of the students in the last class had written answers for the test on their desks," I announced. "If it was you who did it, you should be ashamed because you may have just made another student fail." Several students ashamedly looked down, avoiding eye contact. A few nervously giggled. I continued: "So the first thing we are going to do today is move to another classroom. Please stand and follow me."

I followed the same tactic in the new room. But now most students were rightfully fearful of being caught. I drew a seating chart with each student's name and watched them like a cat waiting to pounce on a mouse leaving its hole. Again, after they left I checked their desks. This time I only found two cheaters: apparently, in the minute or so that I wrote instructions on the board, these brazen cheaters managed to scribble down a quick map. Unbelievable.

As Wes put it, "They don't see cheating as wrong, unless they get caught."

Again, I left the room angry. I saw a couple girls in the hallway. They smiled, nervously.

But now I have a dilemma: first of all, what should I do? Should I give them all the zero they've been promised for cheating on an exam or should I give them another chance? A big part of me says fail them. Unfortunately, it's not clear-cut exactly WHO cheated. Was it the first student sitting at the desk or had the student who would be in the room to take the exam second come in early and scribbled down the answers? There were a couple of desks with TWO maps of Australia drawn on them.

The justice-seeker says, "Just give them a zero." The merciful part says, "Make them take a new exam." Yet another part says, "Maybe they can just go to another classroom and fill out this small part of the exam again?" Wes had an interesting idea, considering that China is a shame-based culture: "Call each student who cheated to the front of the room and give them a choice: I draw a line on your forehead or I give you a zero." That sounds extreme, but I'm at a loss right now.

I know many of you who read this are teachers. What would you do if you potentially cheating?

I ache for their souls. Integrity and honesty have such a small part in their studies. If they're willing to cheat on something as small as this (really, in the grand scheme of things, my class matters very little to them), how can they be trusted in bigger things? I wonder how many of them already cheated on college entrance exams? How many will do it again with their TEM-4? How many will bribe someone to find a job? When they become teachers, will they go on to enable their students to simply follow in their footsteps?

So, yes, all that to say, right now I'm at a loss. Bad China day? Yes.